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The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2 – The Historical Emergence of Architecture (1/2)

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The story so far …


There’s some truth in it though. For example, nobody cared much about The Big Duck or Las Vegas until Venturi started going on about them. Since then, every theorist has had to, and will have to have something to say about them as Architecture. ‘Evolving discourse’ may well describe nothing more than the viral reproduction of academic citations. 

And to be honest, there is a lot of talk about architecture. And every now and then something gets built – like THIS – and gives us all something more to talk about. I’ll come back to this later.

Cheers, Dezeen.

Another residual thought from Chapter 1 concerns the word “avant-garde” – especially when applied to architects – it simply doesn’t ring true. Is there such a thing as a non-commercial architect? Is there even such a thing as a non-commercial artist anymore? But why THAT word? The author does this occasionally. He’s been known to use the word “style” in its simplest possible sense – “Let the style wars begin!” – and suggesting that it really is a) a matter of visual innovation and b) who wins. But perhaps the word “avant-garde” is used because the other words are too accurate? “Innovator” sounds too much like “inventor”. “Pioneering” – once accomplished – is difficult to sustain and is also not necessarily a good thing. For example, large pharmaceutical companies are definitely pioneers in the commercial applications of chemistry. Monsanto is a pioneer in the commercial applications of genetic engineering. But somehow, “pioneering architects” sounds more truthful. We see nothing odd about the phrase “pioneering architects exploring the commercial possibilities of parametric design”, for example. (Thought for later: Parametric design = genetically modified architecture? Discuss.) I see that Section 2.3 deals with “Mainstream vs. Avant-garde” so I’m looking forward to that.   

But enough of that. What’s are we up for in Chapter 2? It looks like we’re going to get a history of the history of architecture. Or a history of the architecture of architecture. Or a history of the history of the architecture of architecture. Perhaps I should put this book down for a while – but no, this is what it’s all about. Apparently, architecture only came into existence when people started talking about it and once there is something to talk about, people had something to talk about. However, it’s not good when other people talk about it so these “outside descriptions” have to be “rewritten” as “inside descriptions”. The author says that this is what happened with Post-Modernism and Deconstruction. Now … I haven’t read Derrida, forget what I read about Barthes, and only bits and pieces of knowledge that was sporadic in the first place remain about the post-structuralists … but – I can’t help thinking that Post-Modernism and Deconstructivism were a whole lot more intellectually substantial than their architectural re-imaginings.


The alien-become-self-descriptions initiate a paradigm shift to the extent to which they are able to make explicit sense of the new realities and experiences.

Now, philosophically and in Literature, Existentialism occurred between Modernism and Post-Modernism, but nobody bothered to write an inside-description of that. Methinks it’s because the concept of buildings just being what they are is and accepting whatever reality they have is a concept that is very unattractive to architecture BECAUSE IT IS VERY UNATTRACTIVE TO CLIENTS. After all, they are the ones who pay architects to come up with these various articulations of their aspirations. Remember the 80’s and the architectural flirtation with semiotics? Remember Peter Eisenmann, for example, and his “deep structure”? He kind of admitted it was bollocks, much later, but has anyone done the same for the architectural manifestations of Post Mod. and Decon.? In literature and thinking, Post Modernism and Deconstructivism were new and interesting ways of looking at the world and we should be glad they happened. I can’t say the same for the buildings.  

I confess that some sentences in this book, I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about. Here’s one.

The new realities of the post-Fordist service economy, ie. new middle class, accelerating product cycles, lifestyle diversification, mixed use developments, etc, had eroded the plausibility of the tenets of Modernism.

The entire paragraph, which you will find on page 73 is quite amazing. We even have re-heated Jecnks …

The Modernist principles had become dysfunctional dogmas. Urban reality was rebelling.  At the same time, intellectual currents from outside architecture were undermining the supposed certainties of a modernization theory that assumes that the Fordist model of development would continue across the globe.

Modernism may have come and gone, but one thing we can be sure of. Architects follow the money. Now the Middle East’s supply of rich rulers is getting rather thin on the ground, China’s lucrative property development market is the only game in the global town for global architects. I’m actually surprised to still hear these same old arguments against, let’s face it, a Modernism that never was. Will the author have the guts to say that Architecture is simply not for the masses?

The Postmodernismt celebration of ‘complexity and contradiction’ (Robert Venturi) and the notion of ‘bri-collage’ (Colin Rowe) reflect the crisis of Modernism and, to a certain extent, allowed for the assimilation of new experiences and for the accommodation of new requirements within an updated, expanded language of architecture.

2.1.1 ends (at last!) with the statement that AoA is an attempt to take Luhmann’s outside description and change it into an inside description. Good. At least we know where we stand. What I’ll be interested to learn is why that outside description needs to be changed into an inside description. Is it because architecture has serious limitations as a medium? Why should concepts responsible for literary or philosophical “evolution” have to have any sort of equivalent or wannabe-parallel in building materials? Surely, the author merely restating the outside description would be sufficient to make it into an inside description anyway? What will be different? What will be the same? If Post Modernism and Deconstructivism were nothing more than examples of cherry-picking concepts that found ready articulation as architectural elements (such as idea that a single corner of a building could contain all the information about the building as a whole), then can we seriously expect anything better from an architectural re-imagining of Luhmann?

One difference is that, as far as this book is concerned, Architecture is still only a system of communications and Luhmann’s theory of social systems does not (yet) imply any particular form of architectural representation. Luhmann’s theory is beginning to get reshaped to fit the task to which it will be put, and here I have an issue. The deal is … that Architecture is one of the “great” function systems of society as delineated by Luhmann. The trouble is, is that he didn’t delineate it – he said that Architecture was a part of the Art system. That clearly will not do. In my post on Chapter 1, I suggested that religion springs to mind as a system of communications that is self-aware, self-descriptive, and autopoietic, etc. Footnote 6 (p75) mentions that Luhmann did count religion as one of the great functions systems of society, but that

the author finds it difficult to accept that religion should be theorized as one more indispensable function system of modern, functionally differentiated society.

Perhaps so, but one can’t simply ignore it like that. Religion does exist and it probably exists as a system of communications to a greater extent than Architecture may yet prove to. It is at least as real as Architecture and to a greater number of people and I venture that it is extremely useful to some of them. I don’t wish to be an apologist for religiosity but the point of this book is to show how Luhmann’s thinking can be applied to Architecture. The author has now said that Luhman was wrong on two counts: (1) not including Architecture as one of the great function systems of society and (2) including religion as one of them. Now he may have been wrong on both counts, but I think that if the author wants to accept the kudos from being associated with Luhmann’s theory then I think that disparities such as these need to be explored some more and not tucked away in footnotes. There’s still approx. 350 pages to go in Volume I so it’s not like the author is stuck for space.

Architecture – as self-critical, specialized discipline – exists only within modern, functionlly differentiated society, as one of its indispensable, autopoietic function systems. Function systems are worldwide operating systems. This is also true of architecture, which today exists as a single world architecture, marked by worldwide communicative integration.

On page 76, the author states that because architecture is an autopoietic function system of society, the global influence of a disruption in architecture would probably not be as great as, say, an economic crisis or a breakdown of the law. Thus,

world society also depends upon the autopoiesis of architecture, and upon its continuing adaptive upgrading.

Basically, the world as we know it would end if the author had not written this book. This is starting to become weird. I’m still not sure whether the author believes he is prophet or messiah. I also notice the word “design” creeping into the text now and hope we’re going to be told why. Surely if Architecture is not Art, then Design of, say, furniture for example is not Architecture – unless architecture or at least the production of architectural “artefacts” is merely about shapes. If this turns out to be the case then obviously those shapes can be applied or adapted to anything that has a shape.

To the extent that architecture (and design) are still, at times, brought into proximity with the art system, this should be evaluated as an (ultimately ineffective) attempt to cling to a traditional formula.

I wonder what they talk about when they’re both in the office at the same time?

I’ll end this post here as Chapter 2 is a long one and I want to start afresh for 2.3 Mainstream vs. Avant-garde. But I can’t ignore the closing pages of 2.2. The pace suddenly quickens as Art is used to justify the Architectural experiment. To paraphrase, Modern architecture (as opposed to Modernist) is great because it is liberated from traditional formal constraints. It’s also great because this is matched by opening up the aspect of form.

The radical transformation of architecture was preceded by the radical transformation of the art system. Expressionism, Cubism, and then the abstract art of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian were trailblazing the consciousness of a radical new beginning that would shake off all traditional constraints.

It’s still not a bad career move for an architect to have artistic pretensions. Or to adopt artistically pretentious language. I’m inclined to think the Luhmann was right about Architecture being part of the art system, especially when we’re told once again how great De Stijl and the Futurists were. However, the author places the 1920s as the time when Architecture split from the Art system. For him (2.2.5) it was The Switch from Edifice to Space. I happen to have my own thoughts on this topic so I’m interested to see what gets served up.

=(  Mostly a long quote from the De Stijl Manifesto of 1923, some faint praise, and then a dismissal since it was concerned only with form. There’s nothing about why space was discovered. For all the talk of history in this chapter, what we’re given is  “Artists redefined Art, De Stijl and the Futurists were crossovers, and here we are – isn’t it great!” FWIW, I think that the insides of buildings had to be discovered as a worthy subject for architectural exhibitionism because the Victorian market for large houses for the newly rich was drying up. Frank Lloyd Wright (in the US) and Edwin Lutyens (in the UK) were both Edwardian architects. FLW explored the new commercial market as well as the downsized suburban residential market. Edwin Lutyens’s houses (and, to a lesser extent, Voysey’s) show the gradual shift from country to suburban life in the UK, and a corresponding shift in the market demographic for architecture. Both FLW’s and Lutyens’ houses show increasing spatial inventiveness over lessening square footage. 

The market demographic shifted 1) away from the idle (aristocratic) rich in the country and 2) towards the new (industrialist) rich in the country and then 3) towards the new (commercial) rich in the suburbs. The Villa Savoye was designed for an insurance magnate, the Villa Stein for a banking magnate. Land was still important, but only as something to look at from a window – there’s no riding or hunting now.  The house is something to get to and go into and much is made of getting to it and going into it. Once inside, people (the French being French) presumably talked about Braque, Les Ballets Russes, Le Jazz, Josephine Baker and Gabriel Marcel‘s 1925 essay on “Existence and Objectivity”.

The inside was where people spent what little time they had. When the newly rich can only afford a few hectares just outside the city, architecture has to either adapt or die. It’s the estates that got small. Hello Modern Architecture! Corbusier was quick at this. He hit upon some truths of his own early on with the Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau. A double storey space is nice to be in perhaps but what’s being appreciated is merely the decadent wastage of space where a useful floor could have been. What is “space” other than internal property? Those who think that Le Corbusier’s 1947 Unité d’Habitations is a good example to the contrary should examine the plans closely and study the functional cost of that “spatial” gain.

When one market disappears, this thing called “architecture” looks downwards for the next available market. It’s said that architecture reflects the “spirit of the times” but this is really just an inoffensive way of saying it chases the money at any given time. Unlike the author, I’m not convinced that the drivers of architectural invention have the good of society at heart. Nevertheless, I do agree with the author. Architecture is indeed a system of communications but, unlike the author, I don’t think it’s saying much. 


  • Lord Norman has clearly done it all before. His presence and ability to communicate articulately, coherently and understandably was instructive.
    The starch’s thought they just needed to walk in the room. rem, “beauty”? it brings your banner instantly to mind.

    • Yes, NF doesn’t waste words. Over the years, there’s not been much reported about his impressions or feelings or aspirations about what his company produces. This is not a bad thing, of course. With this project, even seemingly gratuitous features get justified in terms of functional reasons. The gardeny bits, couldn’t not be there because of setbacks, structure and column-freeness, but he presented those inevitabilities as advantages. Most instructive for me was seeing him justify the three decorative colourfully-illuminated extensions at the top of the building. I’m sure the purpose was to remind clients of what the spire of The Empire State Building’s been doing recently (and which is not a bad association to make in any case) but, more importantly, that it doesn’t look like they’ll cost that much extra. Light is cheap, and these will light up beautifully. It’s not even about symbolic value for money, it’s just about the clients being able to pick out their building on the skyline at night and say “there it is!” I thought that showed impressive knowledge of what it’s all about, as well as the cold-blooded application of that knowledge.

      Separate from all that, I don’t think any of them were used to sitting around the same table together, and for such high stakes. As you say, the others are probably much better with audiences prepared to adore them. It’s not often you see these people look human. To its credit, the room was marvellously unimpressive.

      • I loved that Koolhaas managed to chew up 10 minutes of time explaining that the tower was twisted and how this produced nice shading and silhouettes when the tower was rotated against a fixed light source (showing an array of shadows which wouldn’t occur unless the tower was actually a rotating skyscraper.).

    • Jonathan, that’s an excellent link – I can’t believe I missed it! From what the article says, I’m looking forward to seeing the videos. It seems that the “losers” made the mistake of thinking they were talking to journalists and academics. This is a problem when “avant-garde” want to be “mainstream” as well. (My next installment “2.2 Avant-garde vs. Mainstream” is taking a while.) I would have thought that mr p and miss z would make a better double act.